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Lush peonies add beauty, fragrance to early summer gardens

Submitted Photo Sarah Bernhardt peony, introduced in 1906, is one of the world’s most popular peonies. Photo from Longfield-Gardens.com.

Set aside a sunny spot in your garden or landscape for a few easy-care, herbaceous peonies. These traditional favorites are treasured for their bountiful early summer flowers, vigorous, shrub-like habit and amazing longevity. Peonies blend nicely with other perennials and are a good addition to both formal and informal garden designs.

The peony’s sumptuous flowers and captivating fragrance have been admired by generations of gardeners. While many other plants come and go, peonies have staying power. The variety ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ was introduced in 1906 and has been popular ever since. Its plush, pale pink flowers have silvery tips and open late in the peony season.

To maximize your enjoyment, extend the peony season by growing an assortment of early, mid and late-blooming varieties. Choose wisely and it’s possible to have peonies in bloom for a month or more. If you live in an area with relatively warm weather, plant more of the early and midseason varieties so the plants have plenty of time to display their blossoms before the weather gets hot.

Add variety to your peony display by including plants with different flower styles. Options include single, anemone, semi-double, double and bomb types. Herbaceous peonies also come in many beautiful colors, including white, cream, coral, pink, rose and dark red.

Start the season off with a few of the earlier bloomers such as Coral Charm, Buckeye Belle, Festiva Maxima, Bowl of Beauty, Black Beauty, Purple Spider and Red Charm (longfield-gardens.com). Coral Charm’s lightly fragrant flowers are a unique blend of coral and cream. This semi double peony is the recipient of the American Peony Society Gold Medal.

The large double ruby red flowers of Buckeye Belle are displayed on compact plants that are the perfect size for perennial gardens. Pairing this peony with the snowy-white flowers of Festiva Maxima is a striking combination.

Transition into mid-season with the heirloom variety Red Charm. Its long stems have few side buds, which makes it great for cutting. And the rose-like fragrance perfumes gardens and bouquets. For a completely different look, consider the fragrant, double bomb flowers of Lady Liberty. Its frilly inner petals are cream and apricot, and form a tight ball resting on a double row of flamingo pink petals.

Anemone-style peonies have frilly centers surrounded by a single or double row of larger petals. The variety Sorbet features layers of candy pink and cream petals. It is deliciously fragrant, with sturdy stems that are excellent for cutting. Don’t overlook other classic, mid-season bloomers like Duchess de Nemours, Celebrity and Red Supreme.

Close out the peony season with the large, raspberry-red blossoms of the classic French double peony Felix Crousse, and other time-tested favorites such as Lady Alexandria Duff and the beloved Sarah Bernhardt.

Peonies are known for their extravagant flowers, but the plants themselves are almost as impressive. Leaves emerge in spring with a tinge of red and reach a height of 3 feet within less than a month. By the time the flower buds appear, the plants are the size of a small shrub. After the flowers fade, the peony’s lush, deep green leaves remain all season, providing a nice backdrop for nearby blooms. As temperatures cool in fall, the foliage often displays a nice reddish fall color.

Bare root peonies may be planted in spring or fall. After planting, they will take some time to settle in. Young plants need 3 years or more to reach full size, but after that, they will flower every year for decades to come.

Melinda Myers has written numerous books, including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her web site is www.MelindaMyers.com.

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